Luke 13:1-9

Repent or Perish

13 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Many of you know my good friend Sean Gladding.  He’s been a part of Fleming Road UCC’s history in that he’s spoken here, led retreats with us, and many of you have read his books and we even did a book/video study of his a while back.

Sean is one of my best friends and we spent some time together this past Friday.  So good.  We shared, and continue to share, a lot of life.  He’s a true friend that loves me unconditionally, and vice versa.  

He’s also an avid gardener, especially in urban settings.  He has build community for decades and common spaces where things are grown together have been a central part of his community building and organizing.  When I was in Birmingham, England recently, visiting with another friend, Sam Ewall, who also is an urban gardener, Sean was mentioned as an example of living into a neighborhood and using gardening as a practical way to feed a neighborhood, but also contribute to a neighborhood’s financial and relational well-being…it’s growth.

Sean also likes figs and grows them in his front and back yards in his neighborhood.  Those are figs in the slide.  

Which is appropriate in this morning’s lectionary gospel reading.

The writer of Luke starts off with a reference to Galileans being slaughtered by Pilate, mixing their blood in with their sacrifices…which made them unclean in death.  Pilate, like many rulers throughout history, had an ego that was demonstrated with amazing cruelty…much like we are seeing today with Putin and Ukraine.  This was an added insult by Pilate because he not only killed them, but did so in a way that they did not have time to repent.  The next reference about the tower of Siloam, no one really knows about because there isn’t an independent historical record of what happened.  But, the same message, they perished before they repented.  

Now, we know as we have talked about this before…repentance is not harsh, it’s actually pretty simple.  It’s a change of heart, a change of mind.  I would even add a phrase and layer by saying like a shift in “social imaginary”.  Social imaginary is a set way of thinking and being in the world because of values that we are raised in, institutions that we lean into, cultural ways of being.  A social imaginary is a neutral term, it can be good and it can be limiting.  If we experience change in the world in which we live, and our social imaginary limits us to doing things the same we always have…and we don’t shift in that imaginary to adapt to those changes, then we eventually whither away and die.

The gospel message is that our social imaginary is bound up in a dynamic flow with God and with one another that moves us towards living abundant lives filled with love for ourselves, others, in a cosmic divine union.  In that dynamic relationship, we have certain characteristics.  We lean into change, we listen, we grow and produce fruit through giving and receiving hospitality, we respect tradition, but we don’t let it limit us from trying new things…even things that will probably fail, but knowing that, in God’s economy, failure leads to growth and even resurrection.  Exhibit A is the cross…an executioners symbol that is supposed to be emblematic of humiliation, punishment, violence, and the power of the state.  When one is crucified, he or she is put down and has failed in something.  

But, with God, this symbol has become instead a symbol of God’s power which is always being emptied and coming down to us and pushing us towards new growth, to resurrection.  

It can be hard…the Christian way of being…it calls us to lean into the growth process which is not what the systems of the world say…they say win at all costs, be comfortable, avoid pain and struggle.  The way of Jesus is to lean into the struggle, to endure, to find solace in God’s “with-ness”, being with us…and to grow stronger in who we created to be in our true selves.  

1 Corinthians 1:-13 is also one of our lectionary readings.  The writer of this Pauline epistle has some harsh words, check it out, but in the end, it’s reminding us to persevere, to not complain, but to listen and lean into whatever is “testing” us in order for us to grow.

Back to our gospel lesson, the writer of Luke talks about figs.  It usually takes three years for a fig tree to produce fruit as Luke tells us, and Sean would tell us also!

This fig tree hasn’t produced fruit.  The vineyard owner went to the gardener and told him to tear it down.  It wasn’t producing fruit.  But, the gardener says lets give it another year.  He puts manure down…compost.  Waste that is usually thrown away…but, if you garden, you know that our waste, if given oxygen over time, can become nutrients for new growth.  

Friends, our church may seem like that fig tree.  But, God, the master gardener, is reminding us that nothing is wasted, that what we have done for decades, centuries even, can be good nutrients for future growth.  It can be messy, smelly at times.  But, we must have patience with our church, and with ourselves.  We may feel like the church, at times, is not producing fruit.  We may also feel that way about our own personal lives.

But God is reminding us in Luke to take a second and even third or fourth look…at our ourselves and who we are as a faith community.  We have an amazing history, a beautiful present, and the potential for a great future.  But, we have to have a gardener’s patience…and maybe listen to one another, our neighbors, and to God like the gardener did, and less talking like the vineyard owner.  We have time for a change, a transformation, a new social imaginary to emerge from the old one…let’s be patient with ourselves and one another, but let’s also be intentional and listen for opportunities to grow new things.  

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